Hanorah Vanni

Designer & Strategist

I wear a fitness tracker on my wrist to measure my daily steps and heart rate during workouts. At home, I have a smart scale that syncs measurements of my weight and body fat percentage in the same app where I track my movements.

Recently, I’ve become frustrated by chronic errors within my “quantified self” setup. These errors may be systemic or user-generated, I’m not 100% sure. When I update unrelated settings, the “calories burned” estimate for my workout jumps around. At home, the body fat % on my scale is over 8% higher than the number captured by my personal trainer using calipers.

This led me to wonder: how on earth can I be sure my quantified self is being quantified correctly?

The majority of the fitness tracking industry is predicated on blind trust. Sure, news outlets like Wirecutter use third-party tools to test the accuracy of these devices, but they typically only evaluate the earliest lifetime of a product.

People constantly ask about the value and impact of the quantified self, but I’ve yet to see a real evaluation of the implications inaccurate data can have. For many people, these numbers provide a barometer of success/failure in diet plans and exercise routines.

Turns out, it becomes much harder to gaining meaningful insight from the “quantified self” when you lose confidence in the numbers themselves.

What’s your experience with fitness trackers and health-adjacent IoT devices?

I wear a fitness tracker on my wrist to measure my daily steps and my heart rate during workouts. I also have a smart scale at home that syncs my weight and body fat % measurements into the same app where I track my movements.

Increasingly, I’ve become frustrated by chronic errors (whether systematic or user-generated) within my “quantified self” setup: the calorie count for my latest workout was jumping around when I adjusted unrelated settings, and then the body fat % on my scale was 7% off from the number captured by my personal trainer.

Why do I put so much stock in the arbitrary numbers my watch and scale generate to quantify my exercise and body mass? How on earth do I know they’re accurate?

The majority of this industry is predicated on blind trust. Sure, there are news outlets like Wirecutter that use third-party tools to test the accuracy of these devices, but they typically only evaluate the earliest lifetime of a product. They don’t give you much (if any) insight into how these data can impact your life over time — not to mention the implications inaccurate data can have.

Turns out, it becomes much harder to gaining meaningful insight from the “quantified self” when you lose confidence in the numbers themselves.

What’s your experience with fitness trackers and health-adjacent IoT devices?

I think it’s only natural when you work in our field to consider how you might approach the other disciplines that fall within the massive umbrella of design. Sure, I design digital products – how would I design physical ones? Or the interior decor of a living space? Or a hand-made screen print?

The bullet item that I always come back to when considering this vast list of disciplines is game design.

I love games. Music heads listen to albums, attend live shows, and build up their vinyl collection. Instead, I’m tuned into The Giant Beastcast, playing indie titles on my Switch, and saving up for a new graphics card for my PC.

Game design is primarily a question of software. Hardware factors in too, but for the majority of devs, that’s more of a constraint within which their games are designed. I’ve observed that digital product design and game design share a number of key pitfalls.

This week, investigative journalist Jason Schreier at Kotaku published an in-depth exposé on the development of game studio BioWare’s latest release: Anthem. In February of this year, under publisher EA, BioWare’s brand new IP was released for Xbox One, PS4 and Windows PC.

BioWare is the studio behind Mass Effect. They are best known for immersive, character-driven stories in fantasy and sci-fi environments. After the disappointing soft reboot of their flagship series with 2016’s Mass Effect: Andromeda, anticipation for Anthem exponentially increased, but the game was widely panned by critics and BioWare fans alike upon its release.

In his piece, Schreier revealed a development process that was plagued by indecision, crunched deadlines, and technical difficulties. While reading this 11,000+ words that comprised this article, I was struck by the similarity of these issues to typical challenges faced by software design projects. These were far larger in scope, sure: Anthem was a triple-A game title after all, with a multi-million dollar budget and a development timeline of almost 7 years.

A number of the problems BioWare faced are the same ones which Agile software development methodologies like Kanban and Scrum aim to mitigate: * long development timelines without access to meaningful user testing and feedback * creeping project scopes and slipping milestones that stretch Gantt charts to their breaking point over years of investment * unhelpful management practices from stakeholders with minimal domain expertise

If you’ve ever had a stringent release deadline like the ones experience in game development, you’ve experienced the same sort of crunch. I too have worked 12-hour days and late weekend nights to hit a launch deadline for a client’s trade show announcement, press release, or some other arbitrary milestone. For Anthem, publisher EA drew a line in the sand based on their fiscal year, mandating that the game be released in February 2019.

Many digital product teams mitigate the risk posed by huge releases by putting out a minimum-viable product. Following an initial release, user feedback helps drive the product roadmap and more meaningful functionality and features are added over time.

Some game studios are utilizing a variation on this strategy by releasing their games in “early access”: Unknown Worlds Entertainment saw success by taking this tack in the development of sandbox survival game Subnautica. First released on PC in December 2014, it didn’t see a “full release” build until three years later.

In my opinion, this approach is beautifully showcased in the crowd-funded serial documentary “Developing Hell” by Noclip, which is actively following the ongoing development of Supergiant Games’ newest title Hades. The video series is following an episodic release schedule, taking the same approach to documentary film-making as the studio is taking with their game.

While some titles have seen success with this strategy, do video games sacrifice something in an iterative release cycle that typical software doesn’t?

While “games as a service” like MMOs and MOBAs exist, the vast majority of video games have a limited life span with the average player. A gamer picks something up, plays it for between 1 – 20 hours, and puts it back down. The same can’t be said for say, Twitter, Uber, or Slack: these are applications a typical user interacts with regularly over the course of weeks, months, and years.

Another piece is the “WOW” factor that video game publicists crave: there’s a magic to hearing about a new game, picking it up on release day, and seeing the fandom and excitement spread like wildfire. In this sense, games have more in common with movies than typical software: they’re part of the zeitgeist, here and then gone.

To that effect, many game developers (often at the behest of their publishers) are trying to squeeze additional life – and revenue – out of games that are produced within years-long, crunch-heavy dev cycles. This has resulted in seasonal content releases (often free), expansion packs (for an added cost), and infinite cosmetic packs and loot boxes for purchase.

Whether or not this strategy of drip-fed revenue post $59.99 investment is working for the industry is largely up for debate. Publishers seem extremely reticent to raise the base price on games, despite the fact the cost hasn’t followed the pace of inflation since the 1990s.

The industry has seen widespread upheaval in the past six months: studios Telltale Games and Capcom Vancouver were shuttered in late 2018, and big layoff waves hit Activision Blizzard, ArenaNet, and Electronic Arts early this year.

With all this happening, one has to wonder whether studios and publishers have been forced to reconsider their business model. Perhaps these multi-million dollar investments over the span of years (that don’t receive any real critical feedback from the public until release) just aren’t working any longer.

Game developers and designers also aren’t tolerating the abysmal working conditions that have been the norm in the industry. In Schrier’s piece, he notes that many of Anthem’s developers took weeks and months away from work to cope with mental health and stress concerns. Game Workers Unite has emerged as a strong advocate for unionization, pressing the issue directly with industry members at the annual Game Developer’s Conference this past month.

All this to say: the status quo of game development largely isn’t working, for anyone. It’s failing developers, designers, executives, and gamers alike. Far be it for me to end this post with a specific recommendation: I don’t work in games, so I simply can’t say whether the tactics that have helped smooth software process could benefit games.

That said, if there’s something that games can learn from tech writ large, it’s to involve real people in providing critical feedback on your product, and to do so early. Designers and engineers are not gods. We can pretend we always know best because of our taste and training, but the truth is, we often don’t. If we can suck it up and get humble, the products we create are only the better for it.

Recently, I’ve been working on a website project that represents the start of a major market shift for a client. Their value proposition until this point has mostly centered around a B2B market. Their consumers reap indirect benefits of this B2B relationship, but they haven’t been won or retained using the software this company creates. At the same time, another large segment of the company’s business comes through a major corporate partner, whose agents sell their products where no other options are available.

The question is this: as this small brand begins to reach out directly to consumers, how do they compete with a company that regularly snatches up large blocks of superbowl ad time?

On brand alone? They can’t, full stop.

Rather, they hope to act as consultative experts for consumers who can’t find what they need anywhere else. There’s a niche there, one that’s underserved. (Why else would the big corporation be selling their products?) The question is, how do these consumers find them?

It’s a “they don’t know what they don’t know” sort of situation, so there’s a lift to be done in education and branding. Core to both of these components is the C-word: content.

Ah, content. What an utterly meaningless word when it stands on its own: it’s the stuff YouTubers make, the journalism that breaks major stories, the pithy copywriting that sparks interest in a new brand.

How on earth is this all one thing? Long answer, it isn’t – but when it comes to marketing content, the words that comprise business’ voice and tone, too often content falls short.

Copywriting exists at this impossible junction between marketing and design: it’s words that create a feeling, but it’s one that’s created nearly 50/50 by the message and the medium. This is true of all copy: whether it’s on a subway ad, movie trailer, or a website. The last of these items is the one I’m coping with, and fam: we’re terrible at it.

I’m a designer, so when people ask me what I do, I say I create products. But the truth is that design is much more than the interface and visual language of these products. Product design has a lot to do with the words on the page and the strategy that underpins them: their tone, context, and the reading level at which a user can comprehend their message.

Designers outside of marketing are often derisive of the contributions marketing bring to the table. Inversely, product designers are utterly reticent to touch any work that might be perceived as brand collateral. But the truth is that marketing collateral is more and more rarely a static artifact: in the digital context within which the vast majority of modern business exists, you can’t print 1000 copies of a brochure and call it a day.

Websites, even B2B websites oriented towards meeting specific lead generation goals, no longer act as digital pamphlets. This isn’t necessarily a new development, but my point lies at the crux of the way we build them. As marketing websites become more productized, whose skillsets (marketers’ or designers’) have to morph?

It’s a give and take from both directions. Designers have always had opinions on copy, but now we’re responsible for call-to-action text and placement, we’re testing which content modules perform best on the homepage, and marketing looks to us for wireframes before they can write a single word.

Inversely, marketers need to contextualize their writing and campaigns within an interactive context. This isn’t just layout, where a designer needs to see the copy to create the final mock, it’s far more robust a problem.

The root of the issue is content strategy. Who owns it? For most companies, there are a huge number of stakeholders who could (and should) contribute: * Marketing * Design * Subject Matter Experts * Sales Reps * Customer Support (as a proxy for the customer) * Recruiting/HR

When all of these voices are necessary to create a comprehensive strategy, how the heck do you start? Do you start with a headline? A value proposition? A customer use case? The bottom-line KPI that needs to be hit by Q4?

It’s honestly an impossible situation, one that overwhelms marketers and frustrates designers.

In my experience, someone has to own it, but that person will not know it all. They have to be an investigative journalist of sorts, gathering knowledge on the key stakes and goals each department has as the website project unfolds.

I think this phase of most projects is why often times website design happens in a black box: marketers and designers fear that having too many voices involved will muddy the waters, especially with HiPPOs that can individually derail a strong strategy. However, the result is so laser focused on their own goals (or on getting the CEO’s approval), it completely misses the mark for other team members—and the customer.

It’s a problem of scale, and of accountability. And oftentimes, of selfishness: so, so many websites are built to serve the ego of the business rather than the needs of the consumer. “Who we are, what we do,” rather than “how we can help, and why you should care.”

This mode of thinking is rooted in old-school marketing, which doubles down on a pithy, interruptive approach at the cost of meeting consumers where they are. HubSpot has done a lot of really important work on exploring the “inbound marketing” movement, and how creating content marketing that actually serves the needs of visitors can completely transform your business.

But what is that content? And who’s the one accountable for it?

There’s no quick fix: the only universal answer I have is to have a lot of conversations (involving everyone) and a really, really good project manager.